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A Home Cook's Porch Parties Are Helping Fuel the East Bay's Artistic Community

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A woman slices green onions in her home kitchen.
Ari Louie preps vegetables in their home kitchen in West Oakland. Louie's pop-up, Porch Party, has become a local favorite, especially among the East Bay's artistic and activist communities. (Courtesy of Celadon Loo)

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ri Louie throws porch parties. The schedule varies, but usually on Sundays, they’ll post a handwritten menu on Instagram. And then on Tuesday, people from all over the East Bay flock to their porch in West Oakland to share a home-cooked meal, finding community in helpings of hot food and scratch-made buttermilk biscuits. For Louie, the informal “Porch Party” pop-ups are yet another step in their long journey of feeding people.

In layman’s terms, they say, “I am just your neighbor cooking for you in my kitchen.”

After tasting the fruits of the chef’s labor at several art events in Oakland, I began to recognize Louie as an East Bay staple. Our first chance meeting was at a celebration of queer art at Helvella Art, where Louie plated up crispy pork belly with the perfect level of chewy crunch, and jasmine oat lattes that sang with floral notes and grounded nuttiness. The second was a West Oakland Farmers Market art sale, where they sold “chips ‘n’ fixin’s,” a hearty plate of tortilla chips topped with slow-stewed beans, fresh cotija cheese and a tangy-sweet yogurt slaw to tickle the tastebuds.

For each of these events, Louie’s three-dimensional flavor pairings paid homage to the many different food traditions that allow the Bay Area’s diasporic landscape to thrive. And their presence at art-focused events piqued my interest in how necessary the culinary arts are to feeding our inner artists — and how even mundane tasks can be a vehicle for creative expression.

At home in their kitchen on a recent Tuesday evening, Louie carefully moved pre-prepped ingredients into stir-fries, mixing in oyster sauces, vinegars and salts while a pot of jook simmered nearby. They worked quickly, cutting with precision and trimming scallions into perfect diagonals.

A bowl of jook (rice porridge) topped with scallions and stir-fried vegetables.
A bowl of Louie’s homemade jook — a labor of love. The chopsticks are from Louie’s grandmother’s Chinese restaurant. (Courtesy of Celadon Loo)

Louie has been cooking for as long as they can remember. Their grandmother owned a classic 1950s Chinese restaurant in the Southern California suburbs. Through that lineage, Louie immersed themselves in a world of restaurant tools, kitchen efficiency and the age-old habit of tasting as you go. Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, Louie learned that community was something that thrived in the comfort of a home kitchen — and with the guidance of their father, who was also a talented home cook, they soon became the resident chef for the family’s big parties and annual gatherings.

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For Louie, these early years weren’t particularly conventional. They left high school and graduated late, choosing to work as a campaigner for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2016. In the days following election night, they and their coworkers found themselves bereft. To break out of their funk, Louie leaned into their Jewish upbringing and cooked weekly Shabbat meals for campaigners in the Los Angeles Area. The process of breaking bread became a way for the group to bond, and together, they began to use those Friday night meals as a time to gather for community actions.

Eventually, Louie left L.A. to attend UC Berkeley and began working as a head cook at the Berkeley Student Co-ops. There, Louie and a team of five assistant cooks would serve 140 people (and any guests they brought) a four-course meal every week. The food — like beans hydrated in an overnight marinade or elaborate bowls of fresh noodles — quickly developed a reputation for its flavor and execution.

When the pandemic struck and massive protests over police violence erupted all around the country, Louie moved back home to L.A. and decided to raise money for Black Lives Matter by hosting a neighborhood bake sale — unbeknownst to their family. Louie’s mother, father and brothers came home to find flour on the floor, baking pans stacked in the sink, and a frantic baker. Thus, Louie’s subsequent attempts at activism came with a single caveat: They had to allow their family to help.

So began an entire operation. Louie’s father helped source ingredients. Their brother developed software to manage ordering. And Louie and their mother baked. Over the course of Louie’s year at home, they raised $34,000 for the movement.

Through that experience, Louie found their passion. Food was a way that communities could gather and celebrate. And Louie had witnessed firsthand the joy of creating both the space and opportunity for their neighbors to engage in community action. Initially, Louie’s idea was to enter the restaurant business to create physical spaces where people could share meals and conversation. But after several stints at high-end restaurants in Los Angeles and the Bay, Louie realized that they found their greatest joy in cooking meals for neighbors — at home. Thus, Porch Party was born. Louie hosted the first iteration in August of 2022.

Porch Party, in Louie’s words, is “here to serve and support and bring joy to artists, activists, creatives, and community-builders as we all do our part to destroy the racist capitalist imperialist heteropatriarchy.” Each week’s iteration has a new menu. Sometimes the pop-up takes the form of home deliveries or pickups. And, most importantly, sometimes there are actual, in-person porch parties.

During these pop-ups, Louie’s house serves as a place where “things can get pretty intense,” meaning community members from all around the East Bay wind up engaging in large-group conversations that go beyond a simple “how are you.” While knowing your neighbor feels rarer than ever, Louie strives to create a space where guests can feed their body, their social calendar and their mind. Here, neighbors can have meaningful dialogue about community actions, their personal well-being and the food at hand — all while fueling good causes.

A woman stirs a large pot of jook with a soup spoon.
Louie checks on the jook, which had a wonderful, pillowy texture. (Courtesy of Celadon Loo)

Recently, Louie’s Porch Party menus went viral because they were donating proceeds to the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, raising $1,600 in one week alone — and a total of about $6,600 over the course of a few pop-ups. The most recent pop-up split its proceeds between the Palestinian humanitarian aid nonprofit and the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an indigenous land rematriation project whose work breathes life into more home kitchens in the Bay.

When Louie offered me a sneak peek at that last Porch Party menu, I jumped at the chance. Louie had made a homemade chicken broth with ginger and chicken bones, and then used that stock to make a heavenly jook. The rice had softened to a pillowy texture, perfectly emulsifying within the salty broth and treasures of egg ribbons. They also served a heaping pile of stir-fried mushrooms, broccoli, shallots and purple cabbage, all tossed in chili oil and a slightly sweet, umami-filled sauce — a combination so delicious that I drizzled it onto my jook as well. Every bite was grounded in a surprising new dimension of flavor.

Louie’s community work boasts the same characteristics as their culinary practices, letting the flavors of diverse lives mix and mingle to create a masterpiece. The chef’s big-picture dreams have evolved over the years — from becoming a rhetoric professor to a TV show host showcasing home cooks. Now, their biggest dream is to create art about what food means to our society. While serving piping hot meals, they want to gather folks around their literal and metaphoric table to engage in oral history, movement building and elevating stories of marginalized communities whose foods we eat every day.

After all, the story of food, to Louie, is a story about the people who make it happen. And, as the mind behind Porch Party, Louie wants to do both — the making and the telling.

Sponsored

The next Porch Party pop-up will be an in-person brunch event in West Oakland on Sunday, Dec. 3, from 11 a.m.–3 p.m. RSVP by preordering online by 1 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 1 (or whenever all of the food sells out). 

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